There has been nothing but praise for Barcelona in the week following their trouncing of AC Milan. But in amongst all of the adulation, one thing caught my attention: What does the future have in store for Cesc Fabregas? The Spaniard watched his side's demolition job from the substitutes bench after failing to impress in the first leg.
Despite featuring prominently in a central-midfield role for the vast majority of the campaign, Barcelona’s current best XI for the big ties wouldn’t have Fabregas in it.
It was no coincidence that Barca produced their best performance of the campaign when Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta were reunited in the centre of midfield, with genuine width on either flank.
Iniesta in particular benefited from operating more centrally at Fabregas’ expense. He has always had a remarkable understanding with both Xavi and Lionel Messi, and when Messi plays in front of the two Spanish maestros, Barcelona are most likely to produce their best football. So from Barcelona’s point of view, it is in their best interests to get these three into positions where they can link up as often as possible.
So it begs the question, at the moment, is there a place in the Barcelona team for Cesc Fabregas?
Fabregas will certainly still feature in the majority of bread-and-butter La Liga ties. Especially as the fitness of Xavi is becoming increasingly unreliable. But in the big games, he just doesn’t fit in at the moment.
To be fair to Fabregas, this isn’t really a reflection on his performances. His recent form has certainly not been poor by any means. It is more to do with how his style of play stands up to the opposition Barcelona usually come up against in these kinds of contests. Not to mention the quality of player he finds himself competing with at the Catalan giants.
In the majority of Barca’s big games in Europe, particularly away from home, Andres Iniesta has started wide on the left, with Fabregas deployed in the left central-midfield berth. You can see Barcelona’s thought process behind this and, in principle, it should work.
Iniesta can come off the flank and link up with Fabregas in the inside left-channels. In turn, this should create space for the rampaging bursts forward of left-back Jordi Alba.
But when Barcelona come up against savvy defensive opposition (like Milan and Chelsea in recent big Champions League encounters) Iniesta and Fabregas have failed to strike up any kind of understanding in areas they can really hurt the opposition defence.
The best way to defeat these sides is genuine width and sharp passing. Dragging defenders about the pitch can help exploit what little space the opposition leave.
Iniesta is certainly not your classic, “chalk on the boots” wide player. So he often comes off the line into the left-hand channel. With Fabregas also looking to drive forward into space, the two often find themselves attacking the same area of the pitch.
With all of the play channeled into central areas, the opposition back four can remain laterally compact without fear of being exposed in behind by fast wingers.
It would be naive to suggest players of the quality of Fabregas and Iniesta cannot play together. But at the moment, they seem to be standing on each other's toes in the above system.
Barcelona’s play in the second leg improved markedly when they played with genuine width. Dani Alves and Pedro stretched Milan’s defense across the enormous Nou Camp pitch, creating more space for Xavi, Iniesta and Messi to work their magic in.
Fabregas was dropped to the bench, and Iniesta was drafted into his left-hand midfield slot.
The former Arsenal man would have undoubtedly excelled in this position in this particular game. But if Barca are going to persist with genuine width (which they will surely do in their remaining Champions League encounters) it's a case of three players going for two advanced-midfield slots.
Unfortunately for Cesc, he is going up against two of the best midfield players of all time in Xavi and Iniesta.
So what does the future have in store for Fabregas? Can he oust one of those three? There is no shame being behind Xavi and Iniesta in the pecking order; Fabregas isn’t quite at their level yet.
Many have him down as Xavi’s successor when the Barcelona legend retires. But stylistically, Fabregas is a different player to Xavi. The former Arsenal man can do a good job dictating the play from a deeper role, but it is not the strongest facet of his game.
I don’t see him as a direct replacement for Xavi. If anything, La Masia product Thiago Alcantara is the more likely to step in if Barca are looking for a like-for-like replacement.
But there are no players in world football who can keep the ball in a metronomic fashion comparable to the current Barca No.6. So when he does eventually decide to call it a day, Barcelona are going to have to adapt their style.
Fabregas has the skills that can help ease Barca through that transition when the day eventually comes. Especially if he is given a role in which he can showcase his best abilities.
Cesc made his name at Arsenal breaking from midfield, getting into advanced areas and influencing the game with incisive passes and shots on goal. He is a much more dynamic player than he is often given credit for.
In his first few months at the Nou Camp, Fabregas fitted seamlessly into the side. With Iniesta and Xavi both undergoing spells out of the side in the first few months of Fabregas’ Barca career, he was able to operate as an orthodox central midfielder, advanced central midfielder and even a deep-lying forward.
With one of Xavi or Iniesta alongside him, and Alexis Sanchez, Pedro or David Villa providing the width, he flourished: Fabregas scored 13 times in his first six months at the club (via Soccerbase).
Unfortunately, as Tito Vilanova—and more recently Jordi Roura—have tried to fit Iniesta, Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Fabregas into the same side, it is the former Arsenal man who's form has suffered the most.
Cesc Fabregas is certainly a player worth catering for in the future. But in the remainder of Barcelona’s Champions League games this season, expect him to continue as first backup for Xavi and Iniesta.
The future? Whether he can establish himself as Barca’s premier central midfielder is entirely down to him. Whether his ambition will allow him be an onlooker from the substitutes bench as the big games pass him by is another matter entirely.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter @MattJFootball